When I was a young man learning in yeshiva, I was invited to join a mussar chaburah. A mussar chaburah is a group of fellows, usually about the same age, who join together and each week one fellow presents a concept — it might be a concept in character development, it might be a concept in general improvement. You would introduce a novel point and then as a group we discussed how we could apply it to our lives. In any case, I was invited to join a very exclusive group. And the first week someone came in with a Chumash (Bible) and brought out a very deep point. And again, we discussed it as a group how we can apply it, how we can use that lesson. The next week someone came in with a Gemara (section of the Talmud) and also brought a very interesting point about character development. And again as a group we discussed how we could apply it. Week after week.
Finally it was my turn to present. And I walked into the room. I was not carrying a Chumash, I wasn’t carrying a Gemara, I walked in carrying a picture sports book. Now, these were serious young men and I got some pretty serious looks, as in what’s with the picture sports book? So I took this book and I opened it to the center section and there you saw Muhammad Ali holding up the heavy-weight championship belt. Those looks turned pretty dirty, as in Shafier, what do you want? And I said uh-uh, tell me what you see? All right, we get it, Ali just won the world championship. Frazier had been the world champion, Ali now won it — what do you want?
And I said exactly — you see, when you look at that picture what do you see? You see victory, you see glory. What you don’t see is that the world champion got so beat up in that fight that he had to be driven directly to the hospital. What you read about in the sports section is the glory that he enjoyed, but you don’t read about the pain that he suffered. You don’t read about the fact that the world champion got so beat up in that fight that for 21 days he could not get out of his hospital bed. But they don’t tell you about that part.
And what I wanted to share with my friends that day was the fact that if you find me a human being who succeeds in any endeavor in life, I guarantee they knew one lesson: You have to be ready and willing to get hit, get knocked down, and get back in the game. Because I don’t care how much talent you have, I don’t care how much abilities you were given, if you don’t have the understanding that you’re going to get hit, going to get knocked down, and have the guts to get back in the fight, I guarantee you’re going to get knocked down and it’s over. And if you would like to succeed in anything in life, anything that requires growth, anything that really requires discipline, the lesson you need to understand clearly is you have to know how to take a punch.
But there was a particular point that I wanted to share with my friends that day. You see, I was a fan of Muhammad Ali when I was a kid, and Ali was one of the greatest fighters in boxing. Every single boxer carries the scars on his face. Pummeling, beating up, they look very, very different than when they started. But not Ali. Ali was known as Pretty Boy Ali. The cleanest fighter in boxing. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You could watch the punches coming, he would duck, he would slip. He seemed never to get hit. Yet Muhammad Ali once estimated that in his professional fighting career he got hit in the head at least one million times. That means at least one million times some 220-pound chaya ra (animal) smashed him full force in the jaw. That was the cleanest fighter in boxing. That was Pretty Boy Ali.
And this understanding that I have to be willing to take a punch, I have to be willing to get knocked down and get back in the game time after time after time is one of the keys to success in any endeavor in life.